Ousted Pakistani PM Khan, supporters march to demand early elections

The country’s powerful army decided to work within constitutional limits and not play a political role.

Imran Khan speaking at the Chatham House in London, January 2010 (photo credit: CHATHAM HOUSE/CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Imran Khan speaking at the Chatham House in London, January 2010
(photo credit: CHATHAM HOUSE/CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

[Islamabad] Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, is heading toward the federal capital Islamabad leading hundreds of thousands of his supporters.

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He started the long march on Friday, from Liberty Chowk, a public square in Lahore, a city in northeast Pakistan near the border with India. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party are calling on the government of Shehbaz Sharif to call early general elections.

“I am starting the most important journey in my 26-year-old political career.”

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Addressing participants at the start of the march, Khan said: “I am starting the most important journey in my 26-year-old political career; our long march is not for politics, not for personal interests, but only for the purpose of making the nation truly free by holding a free and early general election.”

“I do not want to harm my country, I am not a fugitive like (former Pakistani prime minister) Nawaz Sharif, who goes to London and curses the army. I want to live and die in this country. I want a free Pakistan, with a strong army,” he also said.

“I want a clean and transparent election, so our people should decide who will lead this country,” Khan said.

Police officers and paramilitary soldiers with riot gear stand near shipping containers used to block the area at the Red Zone, ahead of the planned true freedom march by the former Prime Minister Imran Khan to pressure the government to announce new elections, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)Police officers and paramilitary soldiers with riot gear stand near shipping containers used to block the area at the Red Zone, ahead of the planned true freedom march by the former Prime Minister Imran Khan to pressure the government to announce new elections, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO)

During his speech, Khan also warned senior officials, demanding: “We are people, not sheep; do not treat us like animals.”

Meanwhile, the country’s media watchdog, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) on Friday imposed a ban on live coverage of PTI’s long march.

In a letter sent to all news channels, PEMRA stated that it observed during live coverage that statements against state institutions were aired live in violation of the Code of Conduct as well as the orders of the country’s Superior Courts.

Khan's election conspiracy theory

Since his ouster in April 2020, Khan has continued to allege that US officials conspired with a “group of corrupt politicians” to topple his government, while US officials “always claim that they have nothing to do with Pakistan's internal politics.”

Since this past April, Khan has held massive public gatherings across the country and succeeded in setting the public mood for new elections, while the coalition government has not taken any practical steps to show or save its credibility except through use of rhetoric and accusations.

Meanwhile, Khan has quietly continued to accuse the army establishment of being part of this conspiracy.

The Pakistan Armed Forces responded to Khan’s nonstop criticism on Thursday when, in an unprecedented move, the country‘s top spymaster and director-general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum, along with the director general of the Armed Forces Media Wing, Lt. Gen. Babar Iftikhar, addressed the issue during a press conference in Rawalpindi. It is the first time that the head of the country's spy agency has directly addressed reporters.

During the press conference, on the topic of the foreign conspiracy and in the wake of the death of a popular investigative Pakistani journalist in Kenya, the generals said that “we were surprised when a piece of paper was waved during a rally in Islamabad on March 27 and an attempt was made to give it a dramatic narrative that was far from the truth.”

The generals also reiterated that the army as an institution “has decided that it will work within constitutional limits and not play a political role.”

They also warned that it is Khan’s “democratic right to hold a long march toward Islamabad, but no one will be allowed to create a law-and-order situation.”

Nonetheless, federal authorities have already deployed paramilitary forces to work alongside the capital police to counter any violence.

Federal Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, while speaking with reporters in Islamabad on Saturday, blamed Khan for creating chaos in the name of the long march.

“Khan wants to create a law-and-order situation that may trigger clashes between the public and law enforcement agencies,” Sanaullah charged.

The long march was temporarily halted on Sunday evening after a journalist was killed in an accident while covering the march.

Sadaf Naeem, a reporter for Channel 5 in Lahore, died after she was crushed under the container truck Khan was riding in.   

According to reports, Naeem slipped and fell off Khan’s truck and died on the spot. The incident occurred near Sadhoke, a town located on Grand Trunk Road between Lahore and Gujranwala.

After the reporter’s death, Imran Khan announced that he would cancel the long march for the day. He tweeted that he was “shocked & deeply saddened by the terrible accident that led to the death of Channel 5 reporter Sadaf Naeem during our march today. I have no words to express my sorrow. My prayers & condolences go to the family at this tragic time.”

Pakistan’s powerful military has ruled the country for more than half of its 75-year history, since it became independent in 1947.

Shams Abbas, a Lahore-based retired army captain, war veteran and senior defense and political analyst, told The Media Line: “This turmoil can be easily resolved. The writing is on the wall. The populace is demanding free and transparent elections.” 

He said of the generals’ recent news conference that “press conferences should give a roadmap for the future. It should not defend or criticize one party or the other.”

Abbas appealed to Anjum and to Chief of the Army Staff of the Pakistan Army Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa: “Please learn from Pakistan’s history. Repression of the citizens can never make the nation strong. It will divide us further. Do not use muscle power. Brainpower finds solutions.”

Abbas added: “What is the way to establish neutrality? Not by arresting and torturing citizens who are demanding elections. We love our armed forces. We trust you to make sure that we are not tortured by the agencies, just because we are demanding fair elections and freedom from corruption.”

Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, a former federal minister and a close aide to Imran Khan, told The Media Line that “our first demand is the announcement of general elections and we have conveyed to the federal government that if they announce general elections in March or April 2023, then all the matters could be discussed.”

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based political and defense analyst and retired Pakistan Navy captain, told The Media Line that the current situation could have more than one ending. “The entry of the long march into Islamabad will be disallowed by the use of force, resulting in bloodshed. Although Khan has announced that the march will not enter the Red Zone, it seems that the federal agencies will deliberately create a situation that will worsen the situation,” he said.

Safvi also told The Media Line that the generals’ news conference “indicates that there are no backdoor talks going on; moreover, it took a position against Khan, thereby supporting the coalition government.”

“And a more unlikely option is that the government, under pressure from the long march, announces early elections,” he said.

Safvi also said that: “Present political mayhem is the outcome of a US-sponsored regime change operation. I will reiterate that the US will do everything possible to block Khan's return to power. The stakes are too high for the US to let Pakistan slip out of its control.”

Jazib Mumtaz, a Karachi-based senior research economist at the Policy Research Unit – Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FPCCI), told The Media Line: “The government has projected gross domestic product growth around 2% after incorporating infrastructure and agriculture production losses.”

“Pakistan’s debt obligation for the current fiscal year stands $22 billion. Reserves held by the State Bank are around $7.4 billion and reserves held by commercial banks are around $5.7 billion, having about one month import cover only. This means that we don’t have enough reserves to pay our debt obligations on time and required rollover assistance from our creditors,” he added.

Mumtaz also claimed that “we have entered into a zone of technical default and we might push for debt restructuring. Political instability has already fed uncertainty which may transform into an economic meltdown with high inflation, increase in unemployment and poverty," he concluded.

The Media Line spoke with Saddam Hussein, a research economist at The Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), a premier economic/research think tank and degree-awarding institute based in Islamabad.

“Long marches and protests often cause violence and loss of private and public goods. So, what are the economic costs of such activities? Pakistan Institute of Developing Economics PIDE’s research rough estimate concludes that these strikes cost up to 2% of GDP per year,” Hussein told The Media Line.

Hussein added that this direct economic loss is three times greater than the total expenditure on social protection in the country since only 0.6% of GDP is earmarked for social protection. He added that “this highlights the consequences for the poor. If the same amount of loss due to protests is invested in the poor, Pakistan can easily alleviate poverty and hunger.”

Hussein also told The Media Line: “In the present scenario, the country seems to be moving toward political chaos. This would also hamper flood relief activities as well as hit the middle- and lower-income classes severely against the backdrop of already tight economic conditions.”

Dr. Azeem Khalid, an Islamabad-based international relations expert and political analyst, told The Media Line that the political scene in Pakistan is “very complex” currently. “Imran Khan is rallying to Islamabad whereas the economic, security and political contexts of Pakistan are seeing the surprisingly low-slung,” he added.

Khalid also noted that the country “is about to default and inflation is at an all-time high.”

He added that “post-flood diseases, rehabilitation and restoration to normalcy is far from expected,” following monsoon flooding in recent months that put a third of the country underwater and displaced tens of millions. Khalid added that “in such a situation when a popular leader is marching along with the masses, one can easily guesstimate that the political situation is not going to be better anytime sooner.”

Khalid suggested that “the only option that remains here is the announcement of early elections so that the chaos may be tamed and the country be brought back on track.”

Khan's long march was expected to reach Gujranwala on Monday night, the end of the fourth day of the trek. Gujranwala is an industrial city, located on the Grand Trunk Road, about 139 miles away from Islamabad.